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Steven Gursten
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Time for us to drop the “A” word! It’s crashes, not accidents

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Why using ‘crashes’ promotes accountability while ‘accidents’ implies no one is responsible

crash not accident

I’ve said it before. And I’ll say it again now.

People get injured in car “crashes,” not car “accidents.”

The word “accident” does not accurately describe what I see every day as an attorney when people crash cars, trucks and motorcycles into each other.

As I’ve noted before, “Words matter”:

“Labeling most of the motor vehicle collision cases that I see as an attorney as an ‘accident’ has always been troubling to me. The word ‘accident’ implies there’s no responsibility for it. The word accident implies therefore, there should be no accountability when someone is hurt. Using the word ‘accident’ when one driver is texting on his cell phone and plows into another driver who is stopped in traffic ahead of him allows us to more easily brush these incidents under the rug. Using the word accident makes it easier for us to move on, when we should be looking for better solutions to protecting our families on the road today.”

What inspired that blog post was a deposition where “I was told by the investigating highway patrolmen that many police officers are now being trained to use the word ‘collision’ instead of ‘accident’” for the reasons I explained above.

Recently, I was reminded of the significance of using “crash” or “collision” versus “accident.” In a July 16, 2015, Gizmodo post entitled “There Are No Accidents,” Alissa Walker writes:

“Calling [“any collision between people operating SUVs, trucks, cars, motorcycles, bikes, scooters, or their own two feet”] an accident is a problem because it immediately exonerates everyone involved. Even if a driver was drunk and driving too fast the wrong way down a one-way street while texting, an ‘accident’ says it was all just a big misunderstanding.”

I believe Ms. Walker is 100% correct.

Take the pledge to use the word “crash” —  not “accident”

Interestingly, in her Gizmodo post, Ms. Walker also references a website called “Crash Not Accident,” which urges people to take a pledge to “not call traffic crashes ‘accidents’” and to “educate others about why ‘crash’ is a better word.”

The “Crash Not Accident” pledge form also states:

“Traffic crashes are fixable problems, caused by dangerous streets and unsafe drivers. They are not accidents. Let’s stop using the word ‘accident’ today.”

Ms. Walker credits the “Crash Not Accident” campaign with highlighting the (apparently intentionally misleading) origins of the word “accident”:

“The campaign claims the word ‘accident’ first took hold during the Industrial Revolution, where worker deaths were described as [accidents] so factories would not be responsible for updating faulty equipment or fixing poor conditions. When Americans started driving, the term transferred well to our naturally litigious society where the term ‘car accidents’ would not denote fault and therefore jeopardize pending insurance claims. ‘Accident’ also helped the institutions that built the roads make it seem like collisions weren’t their fault, either—accidents were inevitable.”

NHTSA’s ‘Crashes Aren’t Accidents’ campaign

Significantly, the push to replace “accidents” with “crashes” is not a new one.

In 1997, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched a campaign called “Crashes Aren’t Accidents.”

Specifically, NHTSA’s published statement explaining the “Crashes Aren’t Accidents” campaign stated the following:

  • “Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word ‘accident’ promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control. In fact, they are predictable results of specific actions.”
  • “Since we can identify the causes of crashes, we can take action to alter the effect, and avoid collisions. These events are not ‘acts of God’ but predictable results of the laws of physics.”
  • “The concept of ‘accident’ works against bringing all the appropriate resources to bear on the enormous problem of motor vehicle collisions. Continuous use of ‘accident’ fosters the idea that the resulting injuries are an unavoidable part of life.”
  • “’Crash,’ ‘collision,’ ‘incident,’ and ‘injury’ are more appropriate terms, and should be encouraged as substitutes for the word ‘accident.’”
  • “Within the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (US DOT/NHTSA), the word ‘accident’ will no longer be used in materials published and distributed by the agency. In addition, NHTSA is no longer using ‘accidents’ in speeches or other public remarks, in communications with the news media, individuals or groups in the public or private sector.”

The link to the 1997 NHTSA proclamation was found on the blog, “Drop the ‘A’ Word,” whose mission statement is:

“Not all crashes are ‘accidents.’ Crimes are not ‘accidents.’ It’s not an ‘accident’ when a person makes a decision to drive drunk, distracted, or in a negligent manner. Stop giving criminals a pass by calling it an ‘accident.’”

Police even opt for ‘crashes’ over ‘accidents’

The significance of the semantic difference between “crash” and “accident” is certainly not lost on Michigan law enforcement, where I primarily practice law.

The Michigan State Police’s UD-10 report that’s used by every police agency in the state is called the “State of Michigan Traffic Crash Report.” Its purpose is to collect information about “crashes,” not accidents.

Similarly, the MSP’s annual publication, “Michigan Traffic Crash Facts,” reports on “crashes,” not “accidents.”

While this is a great idea, sadly I feel compelled to say I will also continue to use the word “accident” in my legal blogs and writings.  I will also be using the word “crash” a lot more in the future than I used it many years ago, because I do think these words matter and I want to be a part of something that increases safety and accountability.

But then why will I still write using the word “accident,” especially when writing about car crashes, and especially when I’m a practicing attorney?

Because I don’t want to write lonely blogs. Until more people come around to using the word crash to replace the word accidents, I want my writings to be found. And there’s nothing more sad than a lonely, unread legal blog.

1 Comment

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  1. Joseph says:
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    You make a lot of sense